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Story Excerpt

Sacred Cow
by Larry Niven & Steven Barnes

Taffy’s bedroom was a bit too warm, but I sensed that the chamber itself was cold. Couldn’t feel it of course. It was just a projection from Geneva. And it was probable that none of the people I faced were really at ARM’s Geneva facility at all.

The committee chamber was dark at the edges, with bright glowing circles spotlighting each of five ARM executives. Martin Lister sat second from the left. He was one of my supervisors and seemed more irritated than the others. Maybe that was just his default face, as if a normal person had gargled with lemon juice. “Before we retire to consider, have you anything to say, Officer Hamilton?” Lister stands five feet two, lean and muscular, straight black hair, pale complexion, sharp-edged nose and chin and cheekbones. It’s hard to meet his eyes. They burn, especially when he is pissed. At those moments there’s someone else living in there, someone I’m not sure I’d want to know.

I fought to control my temper: this was not the time or place for an outburst. “I saved a life,” I said. “Mine. Fujimoto resisted arrest, and it is reasonable to assume he knew he’d be spare parts if found guilty . . . and he’s guilty as hell.” However true that was, it was also true that Fujimoto was an officer of one of Japan’s largest corporations, and therefore capable of causing ARM trouble. First unwritten rule of any organization: Thou shalt not shit where we eat. Put into improbably appropriate terms, someone wealthy enough to purchase a black-market penis is powerful enough to screw you.

Lister seemed to have expected more of an outburst, was slightly surprised that I’d kept my voice stable. Maybe I’d lost a step in Earth’s gravity well. In the Belt, maintaining a tight rein on your emotions under stress can be all that keeps you and your crew alive.

The woman in the center of the table was a gray-hair, with a symmetrical, unlined face. Which was the correct data? Gray hair, or smooth face? Her name was Wallingford. “Your actions have caused an international incident. ARM functions as it does purely by fiat of the member nations. Tazing a foreign national half to death is NOT the image we wish to project. Is that understood?”

“Yes, but—”

“And there is nothing more to say,” Wallingford said. “You are restricted to ‘level two’ administrative functions until we complete deliberations. Is that understood?”

“Yes.” Restricted to a single syllable. I could feel that my tenure at ARM was hanging by a thread, my career over before it had really begun. What I wanted to say was, “what a pity you weren’t there to advise me!” The guy had brandished an antique handgun!

The man on the extreme left was brown-skinned and narrow-faced. His name was Dr. Sanjay Chudhury. “I would like to add that as the first ARM representative from the Belt, you had an obligation to represent your people with pride. It is not too late. Contrition will be taken into account.”

I wouldn’t say his eyes were exactly kind, but I did feel some openness there, and spoke. “Sir . . . at the time, I had no better choice. It is possible that I might make a different choice in the future, but I believed I acted in the best interests of all involved.” I paused. “Well . . . all but Mr. Fujimoto, of course.”

I watched them. I couldn’t claim that last hadn’t been a bit . . . what was the term? Puckish? Was that a bad thing? Frankly, I felt like I had one foot out the door. If I was setting the other on a banana peel, so be it. There were other ways to make a living.

But . . . was that a smile tugging on Sanjay’s face?

“Level two administrative only, Gil,” Lister said. “Don’t muck it up.” The chamber winked off, and I was back in Taffy’s living room.

I stretched and walked out onto the balcony. Midnight here, nine in the morning in Geneva. I’d had to be ready on their schedule. I wondered if they’d kept me up on purpose. The lights of the Los Angeles basin were bright. Smog had been no matter of concern for almost a century, and the air was sweet.

And I was about to be out of a job.

*   *   *

Sixteen and one-half hours earlier . . .

My relationship with Dr. Taffy Grimes was newer than my employment at ARM, but for the moment, more stable.

Taffy’s waterbed is enormous. It will hold four in comfort, and yes, we’ve performed the experiment. By no means can it be made retractable. The headboard is a complex of instruments and controls: hi-fi, scent orchestra, vid library, a voice remote for the holo cube that projects above the bed, a minikitchen, even a bookshelf. Anti-assault security mounted overhead, voice activated.

I’d hate to be the man who motivated her to scream her danger phrase. He’d be yelping for a doctor or a cop in about twelve seconds and would probably never walk straight again.

In a world of eighteen billion people, wasted space is expensive. Not as bad as the Belt, but I sometimes suspected they’d get there. The first morning I woke up in that bed, I’d wondered. I’d only known Taffy a week then. Was sex a hobby with her?

She’d been embarrassed. “I was going through one of those long lousy months at the hospital. I came home to my solitary bed and I looked down the long corridor of my life and I said to myself, ‘If I ever get any play time, I’m going to have to take it fast.’ Then this setup came up for sale on the Huxter Net. It looked . . . efficient.”

Mornings like this, I wake to find Taffy watching classic commercials in the vast hologram space above us. We loll in companionable silence. I feel waves rise in the waterbed when Taffy shifts her weight. If there’s time—

“What day is it?”

“Tuesday,” the wall and Taffy said. The wall added, “June 18th, 2126, 7:28 A.M.”

Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays I’m on the jingle. I can lead a normal life, except that my phone can pull me on duty at any time. The ARM office is civilized about it. I’m not on duty until I phone in.

But Tuesdays they want Taffy at the hospital.

“Save me an assignation,” I said.

She squeezed me intimately and said, “Tonight.” Changed her grip to pinch up a roll of chub below my short ribs and mused, “When was the last time you played karate with Julio?”

I felt the usual guilt reflex: I hadn’t called Julio Ordaz in too long. We deduct the lessons as a form of dance, because martial arts are illegal. According to Julio, all over the world, when you see men dancing together, it is martial arts in disguise. If I’d been savvier, maybe I’d have been able to use a wristlock instead of a taser.

Without him I was probably going soft. Taffy’s small fist held too much love-handle flesh.

“Point taken,” I said. She grinned, rippled her belly muscles at me, and went off for her shower.

Show off. I didn’t mind: muscle control is sexy. I lay there fantasizing, not ready to get up.

The holo cube showed guests crowded in an ancient kitchen, a huge room, acting out parodies of old movies. It was a marathon of classic Stan Freberg ads, made as flatscreen but remade into holograms by the Turner-Hamashita process.

I dialed cappuccinos and set muffins toasting. An anonymous message came through my system: TURN ON THE NEWS. GANDHI’S CUBE. Huh. I took a quick look at the message’s provenance: Lister. What was up?

I watched the Pizza Rolls commercial and an Alka Seltzer, then switched to channel 70, local news.

A cow had been murdered in Gandhi’s Cube.

Were they kidding? No, the visuals were unmistakable: blood everywhere and red-smeared bones. Close shot of a bovine head. It was still attached to the throat and stomachs . . . which were too small. Then bones which were too small too. I’m no rancher. Was I seeing it wrong?

Then quick flashes of internal organs that didn’t look bovine. Strange: when they displayed an archival image of the animal, its head looked disproportionately large, almost as if it had been bred as a house pet. Another archival holo verified this: the kittenish huge eyes that remind us of human infants and trigger the instinctive “awwwwww” response.

The beast had been a dwarf, bigheaded. Some kind of experiment.

There was also a picture of the man sentenced for the crime: a stocky Muslim named Tanka. He was accused of ARM-level offenses and already on his way to being tried, convicted, and frozen.

There were other images, including two lead scientists and a technician borrowed from the WHO.

Where the hell was Gandhi’s Cube?

Then the broadcast showed me, and I remembered.

People know Ghandi’s Cube the way they know the Tour Eiffel: they never think about it, but they know it when they see it. You could still see that it had been from the Paolo Soleri school of design, or something very close to that. The core was still there, a cube tilted onto one corner. Pillars lifted six corners: fullerene carbon, marvels of engineering in their time. The eighth corner, the top, was flattened for cars to land. Windows everywhere, bronzed under silver shades on the upper surfaces, in a frame the color of sandstone. Ghandi-Soleri had been built above luxurious parkland, outside Jaipur, capital of India’s Rajasthan state.

Over the following sixty years, structure had crawled up the slender support pillars. The pillars grew fat, then acquired yet another shell. Some parkland was eaten by Ghandi-Soleri’s outbuildings.

The rest went to encroachments resembling favelas, slums. By then Ghandi-Soleri was an armed camp enclosing a million people.

They were mostly Hindus, of course. By covenant, beef was illegal in the cube, and there were sniffers at the entrances. How had anyone gotten clearance for a cow to be experimented on? Baksheesh, probably. Lots of it.

I made a basic request for information available to a level two clearance, just wondering if there was anything the vid hadn’t shown me. A quick scan showed one: The cow’s name had been “Indira.”

Indira? As in the twentieth-century Indian prime minister? That . . . seemed a little disrespectful. Had it been a somewhat tasteless joke?

Taffy came out damp, chose a muffin, and flopped against me. “What’s new?”

“Murder of a cow named Indira.” I kissed her. She tasted like clean girl, with a trace of chocolate muffin. A kiss is mostly texture, but should still be treated as a taste.

As she stiffened, I looked up. The broadcast had switched back to the . . . abattoir, I guess, rather than murder scene. Taffy grunted and switched to a cartoon.

I heard Taffy’s silence and felt her stiffness. I said, “This isn’t one of mine, you know. The ARM doesn’t deal in murder. Especially murdered cows.”

Taffy nodded, pulled away, began getting dressed. “Cow,” she said. She thought I was kidding.

I’d still have stayed out of it if Taffy hadn’t poked at my love handles.

Time to go to work. I used my Pocketmaster to call ARM Headquarters LAX.

There were messages. Routine announcements. A chain letter, a sure thing in stocks, a dating service, bio-enhanced virtual sex, straight porn—probably Judeo-Christians for Traditional Values, that one. And a work-at-home job selling virtual advertisements. How do they get past our security?

I didn’t have to go straight to Lister; he could see I was logged in. I browsed the virtual office. Talked to a few ARMs on duty. Checked in with Doctor Whom. The Doctor is always on duty, and he makes house calls too, but he lives as a program in the ARM computer net. The Doctor keeps a running roster of missing persons, and of patients in need of transplants who disappear, drop large sums, and get well. Last year we broke an organlegging network that had half the planet in its grip.

Amalgamated Regional Militia’s duties break down into three areas: We try to stay on top of new, potentially dangerous or destabilizing technology. We deal with organleggers, claim their stocks, and pass the stuff on to the hospitals. We enforce the Fertility Laws.

We don’t always have the cooperation of local police. Too much of ARM business is intended to slow progress. Edwin O. Wilson had once said: “The real problem of humanity is the following: we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.

I’ve heard wags suggest that ARM’s real purpose is to try to slow down that god-like tech until our hindbrains can catch up.

Not sure I believe that. Older folk don’t want to see the organ banks dry up completely. They don’t want medical research slowed either. Shutting down a bootleg genetics lab might stop a plague, but it can also block a pollution-eating bacterium or a more efficient cancer cure.

And some localities don’t feel that the Fertility Laws should apply to them.

The Fertility Laws aren’t always popular even within the ARM. Would you want to know someone who enjoys hunting down unlicensed parents? Enforcement happens during slack periods.

You can judge a newbie in the Amalgamated Regional Militia by watching his face when you show him Gandhi’s Cube. The place looks like the epicenter of the population explosion. He can see it’s ready for a mother hunt. Will he flinch?

I’d flinched. But that was months ago.

As I’ve said, it’s hard to meet Lister’s eyes. They burn.

“Hamilton. You look comfortable. Don’t stay that way: there is a board meeting at midnight your time. You will be there.”

I sat in half lotus on Taffy’s wonderful bed, still wearing pajamas. I grinned at him. “I’m glad I’m here. Looks boring there.”

He said, “Do us some good, Hamilton. Organleggers don’t go on strike. Old folks still get sick. The harder it is to get kidneys, the more they pay.”

“Like drugs used to be. People get addicted to life.” He’d told me that.

He’s not my direct boss, but above me in the chain of command. I talk to Martin Lister because nobody else wants to. He’s one of the most valuable men we’ve got, but there’s a price.

Lister is crazy.

Paraschitzies can’t get a UN birthright unless they do something spectacularly good for society, so they don’t often have children. There are fewer every generation. One day the human race will be entirely sane.

Yeah, right. One day the Brooklyn Bridge really will be up for sale.

Meanwhile there are sufficient crazies out in the world to suggest that the ARM should employ a few in self-defense. We have about four hundred registered paraschitzies, worldwide. Off duty, a chemical cocktail keeps them as cogent as the rest of us.

They give up the chemicals during the week and live on the premises. Being crazy gets to be a habit sooner or later. Then we retire them.

Where the average citizen sees incompetence, coincidence, swamp gas, a trick of the light, a paranoid schizophrenic sees conspiracies. Sometimes they’re real. Martin Lister can spot patterns no regular mind would even consider. Most of his scary daydreams can be shot down by a computer search.

Of course he doesn’t have a license to make babies. Anyone who breaks that law is stealing a privilege Lister doesn’t have. If there’s a mother hunt upcoming, Lister will know it first. He’ll want to supervise.

So I talk to him. I’m doing my part to keep him sane.

“Things look slack,” I said.

“What tipped you off?”

“The news doesn’t have anything more interesting than a dead animal.”

“Gandhi’s Cube? Don’t take that lightly, Gil. Nobody else is.”

Why? “Sacred cow?”

“Sacred hell. Indira was growing organs for the whole Vajpayee family.”

So they can’t eat beef, but they CAN breed freaky cows that can grow human transplants? How sick was that?

“Oh!” I said. “Someone could die?”

“The name of the prospective recipient is Brajesh Vajpayee, very rich, very old industrialist who wanted to get older and richer still. He’s upset. Gil, if this case isn’t wrapped up fast it’ll have every stand-up comic on the planet looking straight into Gandhi’s Cube. Would you like to see a mother hunt there?”

Lister knows I hate mother hunts. “It’d be a major war,” I said. “Gandhi’s Cube is best left alone.”

“Have you ever solved the murder of a cow? Keep you busy.”

I said, “You don’t actually want me going—”

“No, not to India! Just do a search.”

Relieved, I said, “I’ll look into it. What’s the security level? Taffy’s holosystem here is better than mine.” I wanted to know if I had to go home.

“It’s just a cow, Gil. Lowest security, but speed counts.”

“What’s our interest level?”

“When you get bored, drop it.” Lister rang off.


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Copyright © 2022. Sacred Cow by Larry Niven & Steven Barnes

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